Day 3 of our Inca Trail Hike dawned cool, cloudy, and buggy. Thousands of the little guys, buzzing around our faces. They made it annoying to get ready, and made us ready to get moving to try and leave them behind.
You may recall from our Day 2 report, that I was not feeling my best after a rough night of Insomnia and Diarrhea, which I know sounds like a French acrobat team, but in fact is not a great combination. But I felt reasonably well as we made ready to depart. I was a little tired, but I assumed once breakfast kicked in, I would be fine.
I started off just fine as we left the camp, but the second the trail started to slant uphill, it was like I was moving through water. I just felt completely weak, like I could barely move myself forward. I told Rita and Fletcher, and they let me get in front and set the pace – which was quite slow. The trail here was going up to the final pass, but not at a very steep angle, and the steps were few and in good shape. We really should have zipped through this part of the trail in record time, but I was just so wiped, I was taking a break every ten or fifteen steps.
Long story short, we made it to the final pass, but it took us two hours instead of the planned hour and a half. I also drank my two-liter hydration pack dry in that time, so that gives you an idea of how dehydrated I was.
We took a short break there at Phuyapatamarka Pass, which means cloudy lookout, and I ate some cookies and a piece of coca candy. By the time we were ready to leave, I was feeling a little better. After all, it was literally all downhill from this point to camp, we should be there by about 1:30pm, and I could take a nap when we arrived.
I was feeling well enough to enjoy the Inca ruin of Phuyapatamarka, down a steep set of steps from the pass. It was a very interesting site, still producing water from underground streams out of the original waterways built by the Incans. With the clouds coming by from time to time to shroud the site, it was very spooky and mysterious.
Unfortunately, although I was in better spirits and making better time, it was still slow-going. Once again, very steep terrain, and uneven steps. I was slowed more by my weakened state, which had me carefully placing poles with each step.
Even better, I started really feeling it in my knees. The constant shocks, and not being able to take normal strides, started making my knees wobbly. One one occasion my left knee actually gave out on me, and I would have had a bad fall except for my hiking poles. They were already set, and I was able to catch myself.
A little later, the same leg slipped out from under me, and I went down on my ample ass. Fortunately a clean fall, and I landed on the fleshiest part of my fleshy part, so I barely felt it at the time. Rita however reported that evening that I had a spectacular bruise on my ass. Which I suppose just made my ass even more spectacular than usual. But I digress.
I was starting to have some serious knee issues, but there were rewards too. For instance, we soon got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu mountain, with the Intipata site in the foreground.
Every once and a while, there would be a break where things would level off enough that I could take normal strides, giving my knees a rest. But they were few and far between. Nevertheless, I was still moving okay when we made it to the final ruin before camp, the Intipata site.
This is a very impressive site. We enjoyed looking at the many terraces, and the steep steps connecting them. At least, until we realized we were going to have to walk down some of those steps.
But what can you do? I said earlier that the most important lesson I learned was that you never know what you can do until you have no other options. This was one of those times. All I could do was to keep moving forward. We were running late, but we could see the camp.
So I gamely started down one of those steep flights, and almost ended my trek right there. The steps were very shallow, not enough room for your whole foot. On one of them, my right boot caught, and I started falling forward, towards what would have been a near-vertical 100 foot drop over stone steps.
I put out my right hiking pole to try and catch it on the next step down – fortunately, it landed solidly and held. I was bent over at a dangerous angle, but well enough supported that I could get the other leg down and stand up straight again.
Nothing to do but go forward, so suppressing the adrenaline rush as best I could, I pressed on.
Now we entered the hardest part for me. After my near-death experience, the last of the energy seemed to seep from my legs. I’d had very little water for the last three hours, and my knees had passed beyond wobbly to nearly useless. Normal strides no longer felt good – they were near impossible for me. We entered the camp area, and I kept telling myself, “just a few more steps”. But Fletcher kept telling us, “Not this site, down further.”
Rita asked over her shoulder how I was doing, and I told her “My knees are on their last legs”, trying to at least show I was still witty as hell. I was now lurching badly, relying more and more on the poles to keep me upright.
Finally, I saw our porters and our tents. I stumbled over to the tent, and collapsed inside. I managed to get my boots off, and then flopped on to the air mat and could move no more. It was 3:00pm, almost two hours later than planned.
My face was flush, and Rita says my lips were purple. All I could do was lie there. I did manage to drink a little water, but that was it. I’m told a beautiful lunch was prepared, but I was beyond eating at that point, I just wanted to sleep and rest. I was aware of voices around me, but that was about it for at least an hour.
Rita had lunch, and then went to take a cold shower at the only shower facility on the trail. When she came back, she helped me get undressed and cleaned up, and to change into clean clothes. By that time, I was also running a high fever. With her help, I made it to the potty tent and back without incident, but then I was down and out for the count again.
I remember laying there thinking, “So this is it. I came within three miles of Machu Picchu, but now I’m toast. I’ll never make it.”
You see, I knew the plan for the next day was for us to get up at 2:30am to leave for the Wiñay-Huayna checkpoint at 3am, then sit on a bench for two hours before we could get our passes stamped and proceed the mile and a half to the Sun Gate, and our first view of Machu Picchu. No way I was going to be able to do that. I didn’t even know if I could stand up again for dinner.
I knew a problem was going to be that the porters have to pack up and leave so they can catch their train back to Ollantaytambo. So I’m thinking I’m going to have to get out of the tent and just lay on the ground until it got light enough for me to slowly make my way down the rest of the trail, and slink down to the buses at Machu Picchu for an ignominious ride to Aguas Calientes and eternal shame.
I took some more ibuprofen, drank some more water, and passed out for a while.
Much to my surprise, by about 5:30pm I was able to stand up by myself. The fever was gone, and I was able to have a less than normal but still manageable bowel movement. I was able to partake in our final “happy hour” in the tent, and have dinner as well.
Good thing too, because the cook had somehow made us a cake. They went all out on the last dinner, and then there was the ceremony at the end where we say goodbye to the porters, and tip them for their service. It would have been extremely rude of me to die on them after all of that.
By 8pm, we were back in the tent. At this point, we had hiked 23 miles, and were only 3 miles from our goal. Could I make it? I really wasn’t sure. At least this time I managed to get into the sleeping bag, and all I could do was consign myself to Fate. Hopefully, I would get some sleep. At 2:30am when they came to wake us up, I would just have to see if I was well enough to continue.